How Editing Will Make You a Better First Draft Writer

Author Anne Lamott says in her book "Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" that you have to understand you're going to write "shitty first drafts." It's as inevitable as the sun rising or spilling something on your shirt right before a big presentation. You will also, because of those horrible first drafts, have to revise your writing. Revision is a necessity and anyone who thinks publishable work happens on the first draft level has a lot to learn about writing or is kidding themselves.

The process of revision can be grouped into at least two categories which will require more than two passes over your manuscript. The two categories are as follows: edit for story and edit for clarity. Edit for story sounds deceptively simple, but what it requires is looking over this thing you have created and deciding what is worthy of staying and what desperately needs to get kicked out. This can include changing characters, filling plot holes, killing off characters, changing scene locations, pushing the story forward in places where it drags, or adding more emotional pull or impact to your characters as well as a slew of other things. Your gut and good writing friends can tell you what's wrong with the story and then your job is to fix it.

After you have edited for story and deleted pages, paragraphs, even continents from your manuscript you should know without a doubt what is staying in. Then you can edit for clarity. This involves the painful task of line editing your work as best introduced by Aimee L. Salter in her Self-Editing series as seek and destroy missions. You search your story for unnecessary words, poor grammar, verb tense inconsistencies, etc., all of which will tighten your work for clarity and make the story more clear and accessible for the reader.

Now, that's a lot of work, you say, and it is. A lot of work which can take days, weeks, months, and even years with the right or wrong author and the right or wrong story. Taking all of this into consideration, wouldn't it just be easier if you wrote a better first draft? It's true, revision makes you realize how much you want to be a better first drafter. If you aren't challenging yourself with revisions, then you can't possibly grow as a writer. My father told me once that life is the opposite of school: you take the test and then you learn the lesson. This also applies to writing since revision work can teach you more about fresh, first draft writing than actually doing the first draft writing can.

For example, if you realize through the revision process that you use the word "just" too much and every time you turn around you've put "just" in the dialogue, the exposition, descriptions, and so on, I guarantee you're going to quit writing "just" so damn much on the next story you write because you're sick of seeing the thing and having to delete or replace it a million times. My problem, as you can see by the beginning of this paragraph, is using run on sentences. My new job, therefore, in first draft writing is to write shorter, precise, more direct sentences.

I promise you if you put on your armor and go into battle with your manuscript to fix both story and clarity you will become a better first draft writer because you will be made aware of what you're doing. Man is programmed to learn from mistakes, so take this opportunity to use the lengthy, tedious, yet rewarding revision process as your teacher for how to conscientiously construct a better first draft.

The Word of the Day: Tighten

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, step right up and meet the most sensational beast the world has ever seen. A remarkable feat, magical and mysterious. I give you a human being that can turn into a puddle. That's right, a puddle. As she stands before you, looking very solid and able to challenge gravity, at any moment she can transform into a gelatinous liquid mass sliding around on the floor with no real sense of direction.

Okay, okay. You'll have to forgive the introduction here. I've been reading Water for Elephants and I'm feeling a little circus-y. I've also been revising the novel Reading Glasses (or so it is called until I can find it a new name) that has great, great potential and apparently a lot of excess fat. Somehow, portions of this excess didn't stand out to me as much in previous revisions and now it's like I can't not see the problem. So, the word of the day around my writing world is: tighten.

Lee Martin has something to say to you...

...and I couldn't have said it better myself. No really. I couldn't.
This is some great advice for writers! Never forget we remember characters not plots.

Writer's Re-Treat: Baked Apples

I've been busting my butt today at the computer and I thought it was time for a break so I threw a few ingredients together for a writing treat. It turned out so well I thought I'd share it with you. You've worked hard, right? You've written pages upon pages for your big project. You deserve a break, yes, you do.

The baked apples are a perfect little reward for good writing that is great on cold nights with a cup of coffee or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Toss it together, throw it in the oven, get back to writing and in 20 minutes you have a great writer's re-treat.

*Don't make this recipe if you aren't writing or you'll be stricken with guilt.

Preheat oven to 375F.
Grease a loaf pan.
Chop two Granny Smith apples and put in the pan.
In a bowl, crush a cup of corn flakes (or other cereal) and mix with two tablespoons sugar and a half teaspoon cinnamon.
Sprinkle the mix over your apples. Set pats of butter (two tablespoons total) over the mix.
Put in oven uncovered and bake for 20 minutes.

Titles, Titles Everywhere

Over the holiday madness, as I was going mad myself I had two really strong titles hit me that I had to write down immediately. I don’t know if this has ever happened to you before, but I have no clue what the stories that are attached to these titles are and that’s kind of scary. The good news is that, if I do say so myself, these are two damn good titles and I knew right away that at least one of them has to become a novel, not a short story. The bad news is that I’m not sharing them with you. You’ll have to think of your own good titles.

What I find the most interesting of all this is the fill-in-the-blank mentality I’m now in with the stronger of the two titles. I’m thinking about this new character and piecing his life and plot together in a very backwards (to me) way. I’m learning about a brand new character and trying to find out what makes him tick before I even know what happens/happened to him.

I usually keep a running document on my computer and a notebook in my purse so anytime something hits me I can jot it down quickly before it disappears. If you don’t do this already, then you should start. I’ve caught accents, bits of dialogue, descriptions, thoughts, and characters going throughout my day and having had a place to put these immediately was key to working with it later. Without my running documents, these new titles, and the really good one, might not have been held onto and this amazing story that’s now brewing in my mind wouldn’t be “slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”

Writing is Like Wine, or Writing Needs Wine Some Days

My husband and I have been sampling wines here and there as we have the budget and taste for it for the last six to eight months. I'm learning a lot about actually tasting the different wines and finding out why a wine is good or not good. Hands down, so far my favorite is a red from a local vineyard from my hometown. But here's the point, I'm finding that writing is pretty much the same as tasting the wine. You have to pick apart your words to figure out what's good and what's bad. Sometimes the story is too good to drink and others it's so bad you want to pour it down the drain but secretly fear the story will come back and haunt you in the middle of the night so you don't.

Reading Notes: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

*A quick note about notes: I've debated for sometime about whether I want to mention any closing thoughts on books as I finish them. While I don't want anything I say to appear as a book review, I thought I could share my thoughts just to say how I liked it and what really drew me in or turned me off. Simple enough, right? That being said:

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I was captivated by this book both for story and characterization. While the style is definitely that of the age in which it was written, once the character's mental state gets rolling downward, there's no stopping from becoming part of the character's life. Plath's character is justified, rationalizing, and two-faced all at the same time while still being sympathetic, and that is hard to craft. I found Plath's use of language and ability to describe the world around her character so clearly through her character's eyes remarkable. I've never seen a writer stay so consistent with who their character is at their core while always challenging and altering that character's mental state. Genius. 

A Confession about Dewey

Okay, I have to admit something that I'm not ashamed of, but wouldn't otherwise share. I received a Barnes and Noble gift card for Christmas from my brother-in-law. I'm thrilled. I love gift cards. I love Barnes and Noble. The problem with me and gift cards is that I've always been the person to really weigh my options and be sure to make the best possible choice before spending anything.
So...I wandered the store for 30 minutes and couldn't find much of anything I just had to have (mostly because I just received a Kindle from my dad and it's already full of books). Then, I had a little light go off in my head that said, "hey, Margaret, why don't you look at the writing books?"
"Okay," I said and then stood there completely paralyzed like a dog waiting for the go ahead to eat the bone on its nose. I know I've mentioned my love of the library before. Well, I honestly stood in the middle of Barnes and Noble on a horribly busy day thinking, "where is the 808 section?"
That's right, I'm fully converted to the Dewey Decimal system. Confession made.

Welcome to 2011

Just a quick Happy New Year to all. I hope everyone reads as much as they want, writes as much as they can, and enjoys the time we have together. For me New Year's day is kind of like Thanksgiving as I reflect on all that I have going right in my life and find ways to foster that feeling into the other elements that are a little less than ideal.
By now I'm about 80% done setting my goals (not resolutions) and look forward to kicking some literary ass and taking some names this year with writing, revisions, and submissions. I hope you have as much inspiration and gusto to do the same. Enjoy this day and the others still in front of you in 2011!